Children of the village © Nick Hall/TNC

Who Owns the Forest?

Helping Communities Control their Futures in Indonesia

For Asrani, the former kepala desa – the village head – of Merabu in Indonesia’s Berau District, the quest to secure his village’s future has been fueled by perseverance, patience, courage and tumult. Just three years ago, he was jailed for rallying to secure rights to the lands and resources his community relies on.

But this March, his commitment to his land and people ended in triumph when he, together with the current village head, led his Dayak Lebo community to become the first village in Berau District to have an area of 8,245 hectares (more than 20,000 acres) allocated by the Ministry of Forestry as their designated village forest.

It is an interim step in a process that will ultimately see the community acquire full management rights for their local forest, a legal designation known in Indonesia as hutan desa. By attaining the village forest designation, the community has been able to stave off the threat that their forest will be converted to a closed pit coal mine – something they have opposed – and instead opens the door for them to determine how the forest should be managed for the benefit of the community, now and for future generations.

To help them secure full management rights, The Nature Conservancy is working with the villagers in Merabu to create a development plan based on their priorities and vision for the future. The villagers will identify areas that need protection, as well as those that are suitable for forest-friendly development and livelihood activities, like raising chicken and ducks. This plan formed the foundation for the hutan desa application, and the Conservancy is also supporting Merabu on the technical and political process of attaining full legal recognition of their management rights.

The Forest is Central to Identity

For many people living in remote areas of Berau, the forest is central to their identity and livelihoods; however, the prevailing model of development has been based on converting natural forests to other land uses, like palm oil, or pulp and paper plantations. Although changing land uses will have profound effects on their ways of life, local communities have no legal, recognized rights over their forests and they do not have a voice in decisions about forest management. Instead, the Ministry of Forestry in Jakarta and the district governments largely determine how forests will be managed. Fortunately, that is slowly beginning to change.

Through the Berau Forest Carbon Program, the Conservancy works with leaders like Asrani and their communities to secure access and rights to areas that support their livelihoods and well being. The program is a District-wide, low-carbon development strategy to create sustainable economic growth while protecting forests, safeguarding watersheds and preserving habitat. It is part of an Indonesian government initiative aimed at reducing the rate of deforestation and degradation, and addressing climate change.

In a country with a poor track record for respecting the rights of communities and Indigenous People, legal recognition of communities’ rights over their land is a landmark achievement on its own. The best part is that there is great opportunity to replicate this success. Other villages have taken note and expressed interest in pursuing hutan desa designation for their own community forests as well.

Village planning in Indonesia ©TNC
Village planning in Indonesia ©TNC

With the Conservancy’s help, the people of another village, Long Duhung, also negotiated an agreement with active logging concessions in the area to exclude forests of particular importance to the community from active logging.

“In the future, we want to see that there is a stronger forest tenure for communities,” said Jenas, a Long Duhung community member and head of an inter-village body that coordinates forest and natural resource management initiatives. “Communities depend on forests. If communities have management rights, forests will be protected. If sources of livelihood for communities, such as irrigated paddy fields, fish ponds, livestock raising… can be created or supported then pressure on forests will be diminished.”

The Conservancy’s Village Planning Framework is now being rolled out across Berau District.

Last February, just before Asrani’s village received its official community forest designation, the Conservancy brought together local NGOs, community organizations and government officials for training in the principles of the framework.

At the same time, the Conservancy also launched a Community Learning Network to strengthen the voice of communities in decision-making processes in Berau. In parallel, the Conservancy has been working with the government of Berau to create a financial mechanism to fund forest-friendly activities and strengthen local institutions, like the inter-village body headed by Jenas, that coordinates forest and natural resource management initiatives.

Merabu’s commitment to local green growth and attaining forest management rights has raised this small village to the attention of district and federal policy makers. The District Head recently visited Merabu, and expressed his commitment to see the community succeed in realizing the community’s green development vision and attaining full hutan desa designation for their forest. He has brought together different district government agencies to help improve road access to the village, enhance the community’s honey production enterprise, and identify how other agencies can be supportive.

“Merabu is an exciting, emerging example of how a village can take its future into its own hands,” said the Conservancy’s Indonesia Terrestrial Program Director Herlina Hartanto, who led the development and piloting of the community engagement framework in Merabu. “My hope is that we can roll out this framework across all of Berau, and then nationally, to empower other villages to become a key voice in determining the the future of their forests, and pursue development projects that help them realize their visions of healthy forests and healthy communities.”

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